Glasshouse

8. April, 2010

I just finished reading Glasshouse by Charles Stross.

The book was advertised as the next great thing and it was a nice read. Charles definitely did think a lot of things through like what you will be able to do when you can manipulate matter to the atomic level. As in “manipulate the mind.” We know drugs can change how your brain works but how about you can modify each and every molecule of your brain?

In these terms, the book is a good read. People can backup themselves and if you get killed, you can suddenly find yourself in an odd situation because you don’t knew what happened just that something must have gone wrong. As we software specialists say: Backup early and often.

Overall, I like the book and the presented ideas. Some things don’t seem to make sense but eventually, all puzzles are resolved (with the exception why Robin suddenly wakes up elsewhere; my guess is that he got killed after signing the contract but I’d have expected a message from the people running the experiment in this case which explains the situation to poor Robin).

There is just one glaring bug: The bad guys left a really powerful device in a place where the protagonist has pretty much unlimited, unsupervised access. I understand that high level surveillance wasn’t allowed by the rules of the game at this place but a simple switch which sends a signal “trapdoor is open” would have been more than enough. Of course, the story wouldn’t have worked anymore. Oh well. If you can ignore this, you’re in for some fresh SciFi ideas.

Also, Charles likes deus-ex-machina, so you’ll have several situations where the heroes are in a deadly trap and suddenly, you learn that they did plan for this situation and they get away. Acceptable once or twice but not that often.

Recommendation: Consider to buy.


Demons? Really? Really! But not as you think

23. February, 2010

I just read Linus Torvalds’ post “Demons? Really?” Which is about exorcism in case you don’t want to read his piece. Apparently, there are people who believe that you can drive a demon with prayers from a human body. Which is complete nonsense according to Linus.

Really?

What are we talking about here? What is a demon? I’m not sure what the scientific definition would be but I’m pretty sure that the people discussing the topic don’t know either. They don’t care. For them, the demon is not important but to help the possessed.

From our scientific eye, talking about demons and exorcism is ridiculous. We assume that a demon is probably some kind of sickness and the poor victim would be better off in a hospital or psychiatric care. They are just sick. Just imagine when you are in pain. It affects your mood: You become thin-skinned and easily irritated. So the sickness has a mental component.

Treating the sickness would solve the mental issues. So we’re happy and the missionaries must be stupid. Or so we think.

Question: Have you ever been in this situation? In a village thousands of miles away from anywhere? Without clear water, healthy food, and people with a yearly income in the range of $5 or less? Good luck finding medicine for them or sending them to a doctor. They either have no access to such resources or can’t afford it.

What do you do? Walk away, happy with the fact that you know what would help? Or do you stay and try to help to the best of your abilities?

If you stay, what can you do? You have no medicine, you’re no doctor and you probably have no idea what is really going on. There are people around, probably from the same village who think “I don’t know what he has but I don’t want it! Let’s get rid of him before we all get sick!” These people still have to learn that modern science exists. They couldn’t care less because for them, the biggest issue is how to get enough food to survive another week. National Geographics? FDA? These are all non-issues for these people.

For them, the sick are possessed because that is something they can relate to. It explains the unknown. Demons can be shooed away.

So what do you do? Stick to your scientific knowledge? Or do you start to pray to drive the demon out? Showing compassion, doing what is expected from you, possibly triggering the self-healing effects of a placebo? Doing what you can in such a situation?

Yes, we can mock these people because they probably believe that demons really exist. But maybe they have understood hundreds of years ago that science can only help the rich. People who have (almost) unbound access to good water, food and electricity.

Maybe for them, it’s more important to help than to be right.


Nation and the 6th part of the Hitchhiker

1. January, 2010

Just finished reading two books: “Nation” (Terry Pratchett) and “And Another Thing …” by Eoin Colfer.

When I browse through my favorite book store here in Zurich, I’m always looking for something new by Terry Pratchett. I’m a huge fan of his Diskworld series and always torn when there still isn’t another volume out. On one hand, I really miss his witty way to look at the world, on the other, a good thing takes time. So this time, I ambled into the other works of Pratchett but after the the carpet people and “Johnny and the bomb”, I wasn’t too thrilled. But I couldn’t walk away from “Just possibly the best book Pratchett has ever written” (Fantasy and Science Fiction).

And it is. It’s a hugely different setting than Diskworld but as witty and smart as you’d expect. It’s the story of a boy who sets out to become a man and becomes so much more. It’s about standing up against peril, evil and bullies. If you like Diskworld, you must read this, too.

Eoin Colfer was a similar issue: Part 6 of the THHGTTG? You’ve got to be kidding! I loved the stories around Artemis Fowl but The Hitchhiker? Is Eoin out of his mind? Luckily, he asked himself the same questions.

The net result: Definitely not a book by Douglas Adams but also definitely a book from the Hitchhiker series. Ever wondered where the animals come from that want to be eaten and can argue in their favor? There must be herds, right? There are. When Thor (the Norse god) needs some aiming practice, they “provide moo-ving targets”. Just like Adams, Eoin (pronounced Owen) likes to take things to the tip and I mean the utmost protruding electron. It’s a book about a world where all your wishes were granted. And you know the old saying. A fun read and at least one good laugh on every page. To put it another way: The worst thing about the book is its title.

If you’re still worrying whether you should dare to complete the trilogy with part 6, stop and buy.

Recommendation: Buy. Both. Now.


Akaelae

28. November, 2009

Don’t ask me how to pronounce that, I have no idea. Akaelae is a web-comic by Tiffany Ross. It’s one of those rare gems that warm the heart (and not only by raising your adrenaline level). If you like Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo or Elfquest, you’ll live this, too. It’s the story of a couple of childhood friends that get in all kinds of adventures at school, home, even space. The focus is rarely on the action but on the emotions and reasons of the characters. It’s about how people can hurt each other and how they deal with it. Here is an example: Darrik, a young, lonely black fox is moving to a new room and wants to say goodbye to a shy albino fox that’s living on the same floor. During the chat, she tells him that the wolves are only keeping them to sell them as slaves later. Which is why she is refusing to take the proficiency tests.

Darrik is confused. “Then aren’t you useless to them? If they’re running a slave trade? Wouldn’t they just sell you instead of feeding you, giving you clothing, art supplies, medical attention?”

Conclusion: Buy. You can find the whole story in the archive or support the starving artists by buying her books as PDF downloads over Lulu.

If you get confused with the characters and the names, visit the ComixPedia page: “The Cyantian Chronicles“.

Note that the Cyantian.net site has some technical difficulties (like images not showing up) now and then, but Tiff is always quick to fix that. Drop her a polite note if something lingers for more than a few days.


Another example for “security” by obscurity

24. November, 2009

Sometimes, you’ll need a catchy example why “security by obscurity” is such a bad idea. Here’s one: “Starring The Admin.”

The gist is that a developer of an application was too lazy to implement proper user roles. So the solution was “if the login has ‘**’ in it, I’ll grant admin rights”. That’s it. Anyone can get admin rights just by appending “**” to their login (the app will remove the “**” from the login before checking the it so no changes to the user database are necessary).

Cool, eh? And so simple!


Why You Should Be Rabid About Your Tools

19. November, 2009

Rands writes:

The lesson: the correct tool is exponentially more productive.[…]As an engineer, there is a short list of tools that you must be rabid about. Rabid. Foaming at the mouth crazy.

Wise words. If your tools don’t make you exponentially more productive, you must change them. Every engineer can write an application using Notepad. But if you care about quality, timeliness or sanity, then find the right tool and use it.


What’s Your Mission?

2. November, 2009

There is another nice article from Joel Spolsky: Figuring out what your company is all about. It’s all about

“We help $TYPE_OF_PERSON be awesome at $THING”

So what do you work on and how does it help your customers to be awesome with something? If you can’t answer this simple question, then you should sit down and ponder why not. It will help you to achieve your goals.

There is one point about the article, though. Joel says: “We help the world’s best developers make better software.” Uh … only the best? How about the vast majority, the good ones?


Obama Goes Creative Commons

2. December, 2008

If you’ve been living under a stone for the past few months, the next president of the USA, Barack Obama, had his team build a web site where he shares his thoughts, ideas and plans. That is itself probably constitutes a revolution but it gets better: You can talk to these guys. Or rather send them your ideas, hopes and worries. And it seems these really count. I mean, how much better can it get?

It can: The site and all content is under the Create Commons license CC-BY which basically means the content is free as long as you say where you got it from (read the license for details). Amazing 🙂

Thanks for the nice Christmas present, Mr. Soon-President! It really makes me happy to know that there is finally someone who gets the Internet.

Links: Lawrence Lessig’s Blob (he’s the inventor of CC, just in case).


Hancock

6. July, 2008

Strange movie. Here in Switzerland, it’s sold as a “comedy” but it’s not, and people will be disappointed. Also, I’m unhappy about the amount of futile violence and gore in the movie. There are a couple of scenes where you’ll sit in you chair and think “What the f***!?”. This is bad. While in the theater, you should never realize that you’re watching a movie.

All in all, I think that the movie failed to deliver because it couldn’t explain enough. Maybe it was too short or maybe the wrong scenes were chosen, I don’t know. I left the cinema with a strange feeling of confusion, things just didn’t add up. Unlike in other movies, I’m not able to say what they could have done different. After the big surprise in the second part of the movie, the behavior of the characters is suddenly consistent and you know why Hancock is such a bastard. Only, I don’t know, it’s as if something is lacking.

Hancock is shallow and that fits for a comic character but he’s more a tragic character and this doesn’t add up for me. So in the end, even when he finds his only love and gets killed for her, I don’t really care anymore (as much as you care when Garfield gets flattened by a door).

See what others have to say.